Great moments in opera: Wozzeck

October 3, 2012

Alban Berg’s harrowing Wozzeck is one of the few twentieth-century operas to have gained a secure place on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses. It inhabits a world of madness, oppression, and murder, and watching it has been a distinctly unpleasant experience. Still, there is, arguably at least, something worthy in it, as attested by its continuing popularity when so many other works have fallen away and been forgotten.

It is possible to argue that its preeminence among twentieth-century operas is due merely to historical priority: premiered in 1925, it was the first opera to be written in the revolutionary “atonal” idiom championed by Berg’s mentor Schoenberg, which idiom still looms sufficiently large in music history that we are bound to remember, and in some sense honour, the major musical statements it made possible. While I don’t think this can entirely account for Wozzeck‘s continuing claim on our attention, I suspect it is not entirely irrelevant.

But Berg’s music for Wozzeck has its own fascinations. Despite its atonality, the music is invested with an impressively intricate structure. There are several leitmotifs, for example, which Berg associates with certain characters and ideas. But more to the point, the music has, famously, been written in a variety of strict classical forms that one normally finds only outside the opera house: passacaglia, fugue, rondo, march, rhapsody, sonata, and so forth. Thus did Berg, though abandoning the central organizing principle of Western music — the tonal system — reach back to formal constraints, sometimes archaic ones, to give himself a frame on which to drape his musical canvas. Whether this was done in sincere reverence or only as an arcane jest is a matter of debate.

An irony is that this compositional rigour is largely hidden from the audience, and was meant to be hidden; even educated listeners who know what is there will have difficulty following it. In his Oxford History of Western Music Richard Taruskin cites this opera as an important instance of a twentieth-century rift between composers and their audience, between the way in which the music is made and the way in which it is experienced. Berg’s virtuosity as a composer becomes in this opera almost his own private possession, not something shared with his audience. There is, at the least, something odd about that. (Though it is worth noting that it is not unprecedented: the great Franco-Flemish masters of polyphony in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries carried on a similar game of cunningly hidden compositional virtuosity.)

The story of Wozzeck is about as bleak and hopeless as even the sourest pessimist could hope for. It is based on a drama by the (posthumously) celebrated German playwright Georg Büchner, and AllMusic provides a nice précis:

Its story is a grim one — a poverty-stricken soldier struggles to support his illegitimate son and the boy’s mother while enduring victimization and humiliation from virtually everyone he encounters, until finally he discovers that his girlfriend has been unfaithful. He murders her, and then, crazed with guilt and apprehension, he drowns while trying to recover the murder weapon from a lake.

In addition to listening to a couple of audio recordings of the opera, I watched a recent DVD performance which had received high praise and which I would advise everyone to avoid like the plague on account of its being hard to follow and thoroughly disgusting. The excerpts below are all taken from a 1970 film version of the opera made by Rolf Liebermann, which I must say looks excellent. I wish I had watched it instead.

What I would like to do in the remainder of this post is dig into the music of Wozzeck a little, mostly with an ear to those ways in which Berg uses the contrast between atonality and tonality (for there are tonal elements here and there) to illuminate the onstage drama. I am learning as I go, and most of what I illustrate below I gleaned from one or another source, principally Volume IV of Taruskin’s Oxford History of English Music and my old copy of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book.

I will start in Act II, Scene 1, not because nothing of significance occurs in Act I, but because I think I can illustrate everything I have in mind without it. The central action of Act II is that Wozzeck, who is in a relationship with a woman named Marie, with whom he has some years earlier had a child out of wedlock, begins to suspect her of infidelity. In this scene we first meet Marie and the child, living in small, poor quarters. The music in the first few minutes is basically characteristic of the opera as a whole: atonal. Wozzeck enters, and after a few moments he gives Marie some money he has earned. As he does so the music does something extraordinary: the frenzied atmosphere that has heretofore prevailed is quieted, and the orchestra is reduced to a quiet chord, in C major! There is nothing more tonal than a C major chord. That Berg chose to underline this moment, in which Wozzeck performs an act of generosity or simple justice (take your pick), in this way is surely significant. I will defer an attempt at interpretation until later, when we have a little more evidence. The C major chord occurs in this excerpt at 4:18.

The rest of my examples are all taken from the third and final act, in which the jealousy of Wozzeck, and the loosening of his already feeble grip on sanity, reap a harvest of violence. In Scene 1, Marie is at home with her child, reading from the Scriptures. She reads the story of Christ’s mercy toward Mary Magdalene, and she prays for mercy for herself. The music here is again very intriguing: when she reads the holy words, the music is unusually calm and measured. This, I believe, is actually characteristic of the whole opera: there are several occasions on which Scripture is quoted, and on each the music becomes subdued, and sometimes, though not here, even becomes tonal. In this excerpt she reads from Scripture in the first few minutes, and then again at about 3:30.

Scene 2 is one of the most important; it was called by Berg an “Invention on one note”, and that one note was B, as we shall see. The action of this scene has Wozzeck and Marie alone by a pond, and Wozzeck, jealous but also deranged, pulls a knife and murders her. The tension that builds in the prelude to the murder is quite extraordinary. When the deed is done, Wozzeck utters just one word — “Tot.” Dead. — and in that one word is packed a world of sadness and futility. He is like a child who does not understand what he has done.

What of that “one note”? As the two sit together by the pond, Wozzeck mutters threats under his breath, and when Marie asks what he saying he answers “Nothing”, on a B. As he pulls the knife we hear a B, played in six octaves, from the orchestra, and as Marie falls under the knife, calling for help, her screams are also on a B. After the murder, as Wozzeck staggers away, we hear the first of two important orchestral interludes from this Act, which consists simply of two orchestral crescendi on a B, separated by some banging timpani (also tuned to B). To me it is fascinating to see how Berg marks the development of the drama using variations on such a simple idea, not least because the leading principle of atonal composition is that no one note should be any more important than any other.

Here is the scene; the murder occurs at about 4:25.

In the following scene Wozzeck throws the murder weapon into the pond, and then, wishing to retrieve it, wades into the water himself. Two men walk past, remarking on the splashing sound they hear, but then all is silent. Wozzeck has drowned. Berg now launches what is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most controversial, part of the score: an extended (3 minute) orchestral interlude of great beauty and pathos, in which tonality again returns. Many commentators have remarked that in this interlude it is as though the opera itself is temporarily suspended while Berg, whose music has always been admired for its capacity to express genuine feeling, steps forward to offer a sad, compassionate eulogy for Wozzeck. This excerpt begins where the interlude begins:

Why is this controversial? I believe it is because to devotees of the musical revolution of which Berg was such an important part it looks like a failure of nerve. Atonality was supposed to be a liberation, a way of overcoming the arbitrary, socially constructed conventions that had heretofore governed Western music. Schoenberg famously claimed that children of the future would sing atonal ditties to one another on the playground — in other words, atonality was “just as good” as tonality, and only time and familiarity were needed for it to be accepted as such. Yet Berg, especially in this interlude but also, as we have seen, throughout the opera, seems to deny this claim. When he wants to convey a sense of real human warmth, of honesty, or of goodness, he returns to tonality. This naturally has the effect of casting the rest of the opera, and its musical language, in shadow: in Wozzeck’s world, dominated by abuse, violence, anguish, madness, and horror, atonality is an appropriate, and indeed an especially effective, means of expression, and there is nothing neutral about it. Thus Berg, it seems to me, offers an implicit critique of his own principles and those of his teacher.

And perhaps this is part of the reason why Wozzeck retains its claim on the affection of opera-goers: its music is frenzied and abrasive, but we are not expected to simply grin and bear it. Hearing the opera is not “pleasant”, but neither is it one of those dispiriting re-education exercises in which we are expected to regard our own feelings of anxiety and disgust as somehow illegitimate. The composer is not, in fact, such a stern taskmaster; rather, he is, deep down, on the side of the angels, and his opera is ultimately a humane work of art.

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